On screen, Terrapins rising to occasion

Series on UM football begins second season

June 29, 2008|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

COLLEGE PARK -- In January 2007, Maryland athletic department officials considered an untested strategy for promoting their football team to fans and potential recruits.

What if the school starred its players and coaches in a reality television series chronicling the sweat, pain, injuries and sacrifice needed to build a team?

Seventeen months and tens of thousands of dollars later, athletic officials say they have what they wanted: a show with a raw, earthy quality that they believe engages fans and serves as a novel recruiting tool.

Several sports-marketing experts said there are few, if any, college football shows like Terrapins Rising, which made its second-season debut June 17 on Comcast SportsNet, where it airs Tuesday nights. It is also broadcast on other regional sports networks around the country.

"The caution in this is that it should try to be as authentic as possible, because to turn it into manufactured, Survivor-like programming is something I think fans would smell out," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. HBO has aired reality programs about the Ravens and other NFL franchises on the premium cable network but hasn't focused on college teams.

Maryland retains editorial control of the show. But Jess Atkinson, the former Terrapins and Washington Redskins kicker who coordinates filming and editing, says: "We've gotten to the point where they don't say `Take this out' or `Take that out.' I have no desire to do infomercials. Last year, [quarterback] Jeremy Ricker quit the team, and they let me do that story."

Maryland acknowledges that it took a risk by granting Atkinson access to practice fields, locker rooms and team meetings. The school says it has resisted the impulse to delete scenes such as one last year in which coach Ralph Friedgen chastised a complaining player by snapping: "This is football, son. Not soccer."

Brian Ullmann, a senior associate athletic director who conceived the show, said: "We decided to leave [the scene] in because it was real, and that was important to the spirit of the show. We had to show that this wasn't a run-of-the-mill, PR, coach's show. And we knew that our soccer program was strong enough not to take offense."

Friedgen told several hundred spectators at a special screening recently in Silver Spring that he considered the show an asset. "What we're doing here is really cutting edge. It sells our players," he said.

In an interview, the coach also conceded, "There are some things in there that I kind of flinch at a little bit."

Other sensitive footage shot by Atkinson - who films year-round for Maryland athletics on a variety of men's and women's shows - included wobbly quarterback Jordan Steffy walking poignantly and unsteadily up a flight of stairs inside Rutgers Stadium after a concussion last season.

On this season's Terrapins Rising, offensive coordinator James Franklin is depicted praising and also pointedly criticizing his quarterbacks. He says Chris Turner needs to prepare better, Steffy is a perfectionist who needs to learn to relax and Josh Portis needs to gain a better grasp of plays and details. In one practice-field scene, Franklin chides Portis for calling the wrong play.

Friedgen says he previews the shows, not to censor them but to make sure they don't run afoul of NCAA recruiting rules. "I can't be making pitches," Friedgen said.

Terrapins Rising covers winter workouts and spring camp, but not the season. Maryland decided that the back story - the preparation and team bonding - would be more compelling and logistically easier to film than the season.

Maryland athletics pays for the show, which costs about $50,000 for the 10 episodes a year. The school's partnership with Under Armour, a sponsor, covers most of the production costs.

In addition to airing locally on Comcast SportsNet, it's on Fox College Sports Atlantic and Comcast/Charter Sports Southeast, Maryland officials said.

Atkinson, 46, a former television sports anchor, has experienced the sort of football drama that he now tries to bring to the show. He edits the show at a studio in his Bethesda home decorated by Terrapins game balls and other football memorabilia. He was cut seven times by six teams in an NFL career in which he experienced highs (four field goals in a Redskins playoff victory) and lows (dislocating an ankle in Washington's 1987 opener).

He says it took awhile for Terps players and coaches to accept having cameras around in difficult moments. When the women's basketball team lost to LSU in an NCAA tournament game in 2004, "the players were crying and they were like, `Why are those cameras in our faces?' Now the kids have gotten comfortable," Atkinson said.

Many of the football players make a point of watching Terrapins Rising so they can see how they are depicted and look for ammunition with which to tease their teammates.

"After we'd get done working out, we'd all go back to the house and sit around and watch it," defensive lineman Jeremy Navarre said. "It's laughs."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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